Jesus and the stranger: a sermon on the Samaritan woman at the well

Scripture Readings: John 4:5-42

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have just listened to a long, even convoluted conversation. But then the best conversations are long and convoluted, as each person tries to understand the other! Jesus and the Samaritan woman he met at the well had a lot to say to each other. And yet this was a conversation which many would have said should never to have taken place.

For a start, it was a talk between a man and a woman. Now, Jesus was a religious teacher, a Rabbi. William Barclay tells us

‘The strict Rabbis forbade a Rabbi to greet a woman in public. A Rabbi might not even speak to his own wife or daughter in public. There were even Pharisees who were called “the bruised and bleeding Pharisees” because they shut their eyes when they saw a woman on the street and so walked into walls and houses! For a Rabbi to be seen speaking to a woman in public was the end of his reputation- and yet Jesus spoke to this woman’ (Barclay, DSB John vol., p151)

It is, of course, not just ancient Judaism which treats women badly. Today there are still religious people who do so, as we are well aware. Personally, I can never understand why men would think they were showing devotion to God by treating women as second class citizen. How can you think that God really admires you because you walk into walls to avoid looking at women, or your wife is kept under a veil? What kind of spirituality, what kind of ethics is that?

And lest I be accused of attacking other religions, let us confess that Christianity has not done too well in this respect either. There are still people who think it is wrong for a woman to be a minister or and elder in a Presbyterian Church. I know women ministers who are treated appallingly by people who believe that they should not be doing their job. But if we Christians truly believe that Jesus is the one who tells us what God is like- well, what does this story tell us?

The story begins with Jesus asking for a favour. The well was deep, and Jesus had no bucket. So he asked her a favour- not worrying about his reputation as a rabbi. And he allows this moment by the well to turn into a complex, spiritual and theological conversation. Jesus not only speaks to her, he treats her with respect. He allows her to ask questions; she becomes so confident that at times she seems to be challenging him. This entire story has Jesus having a serious, spiritual dialogue with a woman, whom he treats as an equal. With a story like this in our Bibles, there can be no excuse for Christians to try to pretend that men and women are completely equal in the sight of God.

John the Gospel writer gives us a flavour of how astonishing all this was. Jesus’ disciples go off to buy food in the nearby town; later they turn up again, and John describes their shocked reaction when they realize who he’s speaking to: ‘At that moment Jesus’ disciples returned, and they were greatly surprised to find him talking to a woman. But none of them said to her, “What do you want?” [as usual, the disciples are a bit behind], or asked him, “Why are you talking with her?” [perhaps they were stunned into silence?]’ (John 4.27).

And there is a second reason why this conversation should never have taken place. The woman was a Samaritan. You probably know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t get on- to say the least. Again, John the Gospel writer tells us how high the barrier were when he writes, ‘Jews will not use the same cups and bowls that Samaritans use’ (John 4.9). By Jesus’ day, the bitterness between Jews and Samaritans had been simmering away for some 400 years. Both groups said they worshipped the true God, but both despised the others. The roots of the quarrel were, as is often the case, not merely theological or religious- there were political and racial elements to it. The religious hostility was a way of expressing your ethnic identity- to be a good Jew meant that you despised the Samaritans, and vice-versa.

The world is rife with such fear and hatred of ‘the other’. It is what is destroying much of the Middle East at the moment, as the chaotic wars in places like Syria and Iraq turn into pogroms, ethnic cleansing, raw hatred on a terrible scale. In a less violent way, it allows some in our own country to use language which dehumanizes the refugees from those wars, as they crowd around Calais or try to cross the Mediterranean in small boats. These are refugees, fleeing in terror from countries where you would certainly not want your children or grandchildren to live. But instead of seeing them as people in need of compassion and aid, we treat them as a problem.

But Jesus speaks to a woman who belonged to a group who were his nation’s ancient enemy. Both are proud of their national traditions- the woman speaks of how her ancestors worshipped God at the place where they had met, a place called Mount Gerizim. And she knows that the Jews- Jesus’ people- worship in Jerusalem. In some people’s hands, this could become a debate, and argument, over whose religion is best, who really knows the truth. Of course it is much better that people debate against one another than if they do not speak at all. And out of this dialogue come some beautiful thoughts, as Jesus says to her,

‘the time will come when people will not worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem…. the time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God’s Spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him the true worship that he wants. God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is’

4016Jesus is hinting that the faith he is founding will be truly universal. True worship of God does not depend on being in the right place. We might love our church buildings, but God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth. And so Christianity has gone around the world, for God can truly be worshipped anywhere- as we’ve seen in the news about the temporary church in the Calais refugee camp.

There are a lot of conversations in the Gospels, conversations which often get Jesus into trouble. Indeed, he had a reputation for having discussions with the wrong sort of people- women, foreigners, outcasts. Which raises the question- if we are truly followers of Jesus, are we unafraid to start conversations with people who are not like us. For we are all created in God’s image. The life-giving water that Jesus offers is for all people, regardless of race or nationality. Why it is so hard for us to speak of Jesus to people who are different from us?

Jesus has put his reputation on the line by opening his mouth to this woman at the well. Firstly, because she is a woman. Secondly, because she is a Samaritan. Doing either of those things would destroy his reputation as a respectable religious teacher- he does both. And as the conversation goes on, he finds out something else about this woman, something which is one final reason why he shouldn’t have been speaking to her.

As he speaks to the woman, Jesus discovers that she has a complicated family life. When Jesus asks her to call her husband, she is caught up short. She’s been married five times already and is now living with someone who is not her husband. For us today, maybe this isn’t such a shocking state of affairs, but in Jesus’ time this would immediately mark this woman out as someone who is not at all respectable. Absolutely not someone you’d expect a Rabbi to be speaking with.

AitkenNiven1980sI well remember when I first became a probationer minister, I had to go and buy some dog collars, for funerals and so on. So I went off to Aitken and Niven, a posh outfitters in George Street, the most prominent street in the New Town (and where the Church of Scotland has its offices). Aitken and Niven sold all the gear you needed for ‘town and country’, and school uniforms and hockey sticks and rugby shirts. I remember on the stair they had big school photos- the polished children of Fettes and George Watson’s (no state schools!) lined up in rows in the lovely uniforms they’d bought at Aitken and Niven. When I got upstairs, I found the part which housed the clerical outfitters- Ede and Ravenscroft, robe makers to the Queen. They didn’t just do clergy, they also they also did academics, lawyers and judges of Edinburgh. If I wanted to I could have bought an advocate’s wig! I remember the salesman telling me I could have any colour shirt I wanted, except red, which was only for Chaplains to the Queen. I began to wonder if I’d joined ‘the establishment’, and that becoming a minister had made me terribly respectable.

If Jesus had worried about being respectable, he would never have spoken to this Samaritan woman who’d had five husbands. But he didn’t worry about looking respectable. He began to speak with her because he was in need- would he give her some water. And that simple request turned into a discussion, a conversation which touched the woman’s soul. Soon she will tell her friends, and more and more people will want to know about Jesus and the water of life he offers. All because Jesus didn’t worry about being respectable.

I think the Church loses something when we try to be respectable. Our society was Christian for such a long time, and churchgoing was the respectable thing to do. No longer- the time is past when you could be fined for being out in the street at the time of service. No longer does our society assume that you have to be religious to be a good citizen. But if Jesus is anything to go by, we shouldn’t worry too much about that. In fact, maybe we were too respectable for too long, and that has made it hard for us to cross boundaries as Jesus did. For when Christians get too respectable, we shy away from talking to the sort of people Jesus talked to.

The point of the Gospel is not to make us respectable. But if we live as Christians ought to live, we might be respected. I once read in Life and Work an interview with the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser (who was born and bred in Inverness). The author of the article describes meeting Murdo Fraser in the lobby of the Scottish Parliament, and then taking a lift to his office. They shared the lift with that feisty former Scottish Nationalist and later independent MSP, the late Margo Macdonald, whom I’m sure has many hard things to say about Tories like Murdo Fraser down through the years. But in the lift, Margo commented, unprompted, to the journalist, ‘Murdo’s one of the good ones’.

Christians don’t need to be ‘respectable’. But I hope that sometimes people say of us ‘you are one of the good ones’. Because they see in us people who have time for others, who do not make false distinctions between people, who treat everyone as the same, regardless of their background.

A tired and thirsty Jesus stopped at a well, and struck up a conversation with a woman, someone with whom he should not have been speaking, someone who was separated by gender and ethnic and religious history. Jesus met her, and spoke to her, and offered her the water of life- this woman who was so far from having lived a perfect life, for she had had a complicated family history.

And still it goes on. Jesus meets us in our lives- just as he met that Samaritan woman. And he does not just meet us in a holy building- he meets us in our everyday life. It matters not whether we are male or female, what our race or nationality is. Nor does it matter to him that we are not perfect. He meets us and respects us as we are.

Even although we can encounter Jesus anywhere and at any time, I always feel that he is especially present when we meet him in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Whether it is the whole church, gathered around this table, or with elderly people in a nursing home, or just two or three of us in someone’s front room, I know Jesus is there. That’s why I think it is tragic that some people feel that they are not ‘good enough’ to approach the table of our Lord. For the Samaritan woman was certainly not ‘good enough’, yet Jesus spoke to her and treated her seriously, and invited her to taste the water of life. In the same way, Jesus meets us, in Word and Sacrament, in church and in the world- and if he invites us to know him, why should we refuse? For the church, its worship and its sacraments, are not a prizes for the respectable; they is food for people who know they are sinners.

In Scotland today you are more likely to have a conversation at a water cooler in an air-conditioned office, rather than at a well on a dusty road. But some things never change- we all still need the water of life that Jesus offers us. And we are all still called to share the water with anyone, whoever they are, just as Jesus did.

Let us pray.

Almighty God,
you give the water of eternal life
through Jesus Christ your Son.
May we always thirst for you,
the spring of life and source of goodness;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for Third Sunday of Lent, BCO 1992, p661

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo